The cover art for Armand Van Helden’s single “U Don‘t Know Me” makes for a powerful marriage of image and music. It’s a reminder that albumCDsingle packaging can carry a statement beyond “worship this pop star,” that it can actually accent the message in the music. The artwork is a portrait that evokes the Statue of Liberty, but with distinctly masculine, Negro features (broad nose, thick lips); his eyes are downcast. What makes the image especially potent, though, is its rendering of Lady Liberty‘s famous head ornament. Shadow and optical illusion create the effect of the crown having slipped, coming to rest on the brow. It’s now a crown of thorns.
“U Don‘t Know Me,” an angry, artfully raw house track that purposefully rekindles old-school disco flourishes (insistent strings and even more insistent bass; slightly off but achingly heartfelt vocals), is an easy candidate for best-of-year status. With its pissed attitude and layers of infectious hooks, it’s the holy grail of lanced-wound-as-artistic-achievement that eludes the likes of Korn and the dazzlingly dull-witted Limp Bizkit. The song opens with sampled dialogue, and a male voice bitterly inquiring, “What is my problem with man, you ask? No. I ask you, what was man‘s problem with me?” (When contacted, Van Helden’s production office wouldn‘t identify the source, only admit that I was “on track” in recognizing it as being from a film.) The song’s real achievement, though, is a bit of genre blending that‘s far more radical than the currently celebrated union of rock & roll and hip-hop. Van Helden has once again found that undermapped but deeply mined terrain where house faggots and hardcore b-boys speak the same language, strike the same poses and view the world through similarly dark-tinted glasses. A rude boy who proclaims his heterosexuality in nearly every interview, Van Helden has always seemed profoundly uncomfortable with both the gay connotations of house and his own natural affinity for the music. (In the current issue of the British magazine The Face, he proclaims, “All we have in house is a bunch of bitch-ass, faggot-type personalities . . .”) So it’s laughably ironic that the best tracks on his most recent album, 2 Future 4 U, are either incredibly gay in vibe (“U Don‘t Know Me,” “Flowerz”) or feature a female vocalist who comes off like a drag queen (“Entra Mi Casa”).
It has to be unnerving for Van Helden to realize that the voice that most perfectly suits his grooves is that of the “punk” — even if it’s one who refuses to be punked. Check out his early-‘90s ghetto-fag anthem “Love Thang” (released under the moniker Banji Boys), a direct ancestor of “U Don’t Know Me.” The newer title, however, drips with freshly minted bitterness and well-earned rage. It‘s the sissy from the ’hood reading his oppressors within an exuberant, irresistible musical setting. It‘s a reclaiming of the fury and resistance — the grown-up stuff — that were always the undercurrent of house but were largely shoved out once the music became the soundtrack for raves and the nouveau-hippie children who swarmed them. Van Helden’s b-boy roots allow him to home in on the rougher elements of house music, and though he‘s too much a fan of mindless ruffneck posturing, he brings ethnicity, sexuality and humor back to the house genre. He also brings race consciousness back to the grooves with a vigor that gleefully flies in the face of the Benetton bullshit that now passes for progressive cultural discourse.
2 Future 4 U is a deeply flawed album (absolutely brilliant in parts, deadly dull in others), but its layered, often contradictory takes on sexuality, race and masculinity are what pull it into the conversation around hip-hop and rock & roll, and what that merger really means. The divide between house and hip-hop is contrived, false. The two genres spring from the same cultural well, share a vocabulary of dance-floor movement (vogueing is the hardcore flipside of breakdancing), and are both voices of the racially, sexually and culturally disenfranchised. Reflexive homophobia and ignorance have kept them apart, and that rift mirrors the larger, crippling schisms within the African-American community.
One of the reasons the hip-hoprock marriage is so undeserving of praise is that it symbolizes the ill-advised consummation of the great, tense, unspoken courtship in American culture — the one arguably at the core of so many of our ills. Hip-hop has finally cleared a place for little straight white boys and little straight black boys to come together and try on the trinkets of one another’s masculinity. (This is far from a new phenomenon, of course, but today‘s grayboys make the White Negro of yesteryear seem like a suburban shut-in.) Black boys get to try on the fluidity of option, get to see what it’s like to be mediocre and still be allowed to fall up in life, with the spotlight and ample financial compensation as their due. (Take a bow, Puffy, Will Smith.) White boys get to pull on a maleness that is savage, inarguable. With the streetthe ghetto as its kiln, this is a facade of insatiable sexuality and impenetrable cool. (Step forward, Fred Durst, Kid Rock.) The ebony and the ivory of this equation come together around a notion of maleness that is determined by what they own, who they own, and vulgar displays of power. But it‘s the angry white boy glazed in hip-hop blackness that’s being lauded in the media.
Not only is this character not a sign of progress, but it re-upholsters a definition of manhood that, while many weep for its demise, ought to be ripped to shreds. Largely founded on fear, fantasy and myths, it incubates homophobia and misogyny (and unexamined racism) as a form of self-preservation. It‘s telling that while rock critics praised the sight of 200,000 mainly young white men at Woodstock ’99 chanting “My Nigga” along with rapper DMX as a harbinger of racial harmony (reclaim that birthright, yo), none thought (1) to question the fact that this newfound harmony centers on a term of degradation for black folk (and squash that nonsense about “nigga” being a value-free term of endearment; America‘s a racial history overrides all that), or (2) to see the connection between this hip-hop-fueled white male exertion of power and the wide-scale rioting, looting and raping that marked the festival. Having worshipped their Negro patron saint, DMX — a man whose anger is rooted in boundless self-pity (and there’s the real point of connection) — and egged on by Limp Bizkit‘s Fred Durst, the crowd went primal because they could. They are the new men.
So where are the truly radical, artful treatises on race, masculinity and hip-hop culture? Mos Def’s brilliant album Black on Both Sides is one example. It‘s the sound of an unapologetic race man making resistance art, a man who knows that racial harmony founded on consumption, conformity and the championing of black style over black life is a dead end for black and white folk alike. He also knows that it’s no cure for one of white supremacy‘s most enduring legacies: the various strains of self-hatred running rampant in the black community that are manifested in so much modern hip-hop.
Having spent years as an iconic underground rapper (and as an actor with a fairly healthy resume, most recently appearing in the film Where’s Marlowe?), Mos Def broke into the big time with last year‘s already-classic Black Star, with Talib Kweli. In many ways, Black on Both Sides is a continuation of that work. At its center is a paradoxical glow: Lyrics that could be read on the page as fiery prose poems, as sociological data or as heartfelt protest retain a pure musicality as they hit the ear. Po-faced critics whose appreciation of hip-hop is strickly neck-up will be as entranced as the brother who slides his headphones on in the dark and nods to the sounds of the words, the messages in the rhymes and the timbre of the rapper’s voice.
Over a deep bed of jazz-derived grooves, Mos Def nimbly praises God and family while wrestling with the war of the sexes (“Ms. Fat Booty”); giving a sober reality check on his genre‘s power and limitations in “Hip-Hop” (“Hip-hop will simply amaze youCraze you, pay youDo whatever you say doBut black, it can’t save you”); penning a love letter to Brooklyn by pointedly hijacking “Under the Bridge,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ ode to L.A.; and re-teaming with Kweli on “Know That,” a scalding bit of stream-of-consciousness philosophizing. But the album’s highlights are “Mr. Nigga” and “Rock N Roll.” In the latter, he parodies the rockhip-hop hybrid, mercilessly disses Korn and Limp Bizkit — and Elvis and the Stones — gives props to Bad Brains, Fishbone, Albert King and Hendrix, and traces all American music (hard rock, funk, hip-hop, etc.) to its origins in the slave shacks. On “Mr. Nigga,” which features a turn by Q-Tip, the rapper pins pained observations on the seeming permanence of racism inside acrid humor (“Now, who is the cat at Armani buying wareswith the tourists who be asking him, Do you work here?”), and you can‘t help but hear a weary heart beneath the acid. What saves him is an intrinsic generosity of spirit that keeps his frustrations from curdling into misanthropy.
Black on Both Sides — a critical favorite — has failed to make the crossover splash that was widely predicted before its release, and the reason may well lie in Mos Def’s voice. His style, more often than not, veers closer to conversational than classically confrontational. There‘s a marked lack of bombast to his flow; it completely sidesteps the minstrelsy that has come to define the genre as it takes up residence in the mainstream. (This is something he manages to do even as he goes toe to toe with Busta Rhymes on the incendiary “Do It Now.”) While his voice isn’t as quirky as, say, Slick Rick‘s, or as coolly idiosyncratic as Q-Tip’s, it sticks out in ways that may not bode well for the trek from the underground to the mainstream. Its very lack of caricature may be Mos Def‘s biggest stumbling block.
African-American music — rap, house, techno, R&B — has suffered immeasurably from being yoked to the pandering, idiotic, media-constructed demographic known as youth culture, that overhyped wet dream shaped and packaged by businessmen. The impulses to overthrow the old and celebrate the new, to rebel against parental and societal limitations, were long ago corralled into the impulse to shop, blindly consume, and forget history except as a costume. The effect of this massive dumbing down is that uninformed, uncommitted, unfocused rage is championed and celebrated, spun by PR machinery as substantive art or politics, which is where DMX, Limp Bizkit and the Woodstock ’99 posse come in. With rare exception, art and anger connected to history, activism and consciousness are marginalized, or dismissed altogether. (That‘s old news in the annals of art and politics, but not historically true for African-American music and culture.) As American youth culture circles the globe, it demolishes whatever is unique about the cultures it finds in its path, starting with those inside America. (Is there anything more depressing than MTV’s Global Groove, where we get to watch participants in Hong Kong, Paris, Athens, Milan, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, etc., all wearing the same clothes, all dancing the same steps, all giving the same scripted shout-outs to the camera?) Mos Def‘s music swims against this tide. Ultimately, it connects with underground fans around the globe because in his call for black love, black unity and the preservation of black life — in the very specificity of his art — is a powerful respect for all of humanity, in its many incarnations and flavors.